On their third studio record, Doom Days, Bastille continue their slide into mainstream blandness.
14 June 2019
At first pass, Doom Days – the third studio album by the British pop act Bastille – seems like just the right title for an album released in the year 2019. One need only take a look at any news headline at any given time to sense that Bastille might be tapping into the dread and gloom which permeates today's global politics. Admittedly, Bastille's past attempts at political reflection have come up quite short – especially on songs like Wild World's (2016) "The Currents": "I can't believe the scary points you make," frontman Dan Smith says to an anonymous demagogue. No one would ever confuse Bastille for a protest act, but that's not to say that – certain lyrical references aside – that Bastille should aspire to political music.
What makes Bad Blood, Bastille's 2013 smash debut, so compelling is its palpable sense of urgency, its insistence that everything hinges on a single crucial moment. That smacks of the "tonight is the night, and we only have tonight" brand of lyricism that John Mulaney famously roasted as "19-year-old horseshit". But Bastille turned the dial up on "tonight's the night", centering its lyrics and musical pacing on narratives not about a single night being important, but about the very stakes of the world's continued existence coming to a head at a key moment. Bad Blood even appeals to ancient myths, such as the fate of Daedalus' wax wings on "Icarus". That's a risky lyrical gambit, but with Bastille's knack for great singalong hooks and energetic electronic pop, the heightened reality of Smith's lyrics doesn't come across as exaggeration.
Since Bad Blood, Bastille's music hasn't exactly lost its urgency, but the zeal of that debut LP has since diminished. Excepting the Other People's Heartache mixtapes, where Bastille is at its most inventive, the main single and album releases have felt like competent but rote exercises in replicating what Bad Blood set out to do. Wild World, as I argued for this publication, finds Bastille playing it safe for its now considerable mainstream audience, smoothing out the edges of Bad Blood until all that's left is an emotive but comfy brand of pop. Bastille's subsequent major public success, in the form of the Marshmello collaborative single "Happier", further indicates the band's mainstream aspirations: its unremarkable, repetitive chorus hook and clichéd EDM synth riff are radio pop's equivalent of playing to the center.
Ultimately, Doom Days does the same. Whatever portents to which the LP's title alludes are vague and uncertain. What is present on the album is a collection of fine but been-there-done-that tunes, all of which indicate a drying up of the creative well. Little offends, but more importantly, little thrills. Album opener "Quarter Past Midnight" is both a showcase of Bastille's unique sound and a forecast of what's going to be repeated ad nauseam throughout the rest of Doom Days: layered quasi-choral vocals, Smith's unmatched ability to elongate syllables to extend a hook, and a deft mixture of radio pop and electronic music. On paper and superficially, Doom Days exhibits many of the same things that made Bad Blood so compelling, and execution-wise Bastille never misses the mark. But when what's being executed is a pop formula that's already proved its diminishing returns on Wild World, craftsmanship can't elevate overfamiliar aesthetic and production choices.
Doom Days' successful moments occur when Bastille alters their typical songwriting with slight changes in instrumentation and arrangement. The ballads are especially noteworthy here. "Divide", an atmospheric, piano-led tune, stands out despite its hopelessly vague call to action ("Why would we divide / When we could come together?"). "4AM" uses hummed and breathed vocals, accompanied by a simple electric guitar lead, to form a gentle yet lush backing to one of Smith's best lead vocal performances on the record. But it regrettably concludes with a generic programmed drumbeat which, despite raising the tempo, saps energy away from the otherwise tastefully spartan arrangement.
Throughout Doom Days, otherwise promising tracks like "4AM" are undercut by choices that one would expect from a much less interesting group than Bastille. "Million Pieces" begins promisingly with a bouncy synth line and one of the catchier choruses on the LP, but then the post-chorus is driven by one of those wordless synthetic vocals that have been used a million different ways in a million different electronic dance tunes – and even several Bastille songs.
Writing pop music is hard work. Bastille already proved their musical chops on Bad Blood and the Other People's Heartache mixtapes, yet with success comes further expectations. Were Doom Days the first album released by the band, it probably wouldn't have felt as stale as it does now in 2019. This music feels half-there not by some inherent feature of its composition or production, but rather because we know that Bastille has already done what Doom Days strives to achieve.
It's hard to say what Bastille could specifically do to alter its now familiar song playbook, but at the same time, the simple if broad "anything but this" feels accurate. On Doom Days Bastille falls into a sonic rut, but its best music gives us plenty of indication that this need not spell doom for what's to come for this still-young outfit.
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